Written by: Trevor Powers (@TPowerProspects)
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Home runs are sky-rocketing to all-time highs. As a matter of fact, home runs throughout Major League Baseball are on pace to total almost 1,000 more than last season.
Jason Stark recently wrote a very informative article on The Athletic ($) detailing the differences between this year and past seasons, specifically highlighting the difference in the balls the game is using.
While I believe there is definitely something different about the baseballs being used in today’s game, I would like to analyze the differences in the hitters of todays game. First, for the people that are anti-analytics, every batted ball has a launch angle and an exit velocity, just as every pitch thrown has a spin rate and vertical movement (check out my 80 grade fastball article for more info on the pitching side). So when you say you disagree with launch angle and spin rate, you are saying you disagree with undeniable facts about plays that occur on the baseball field.
Every ball Babe Ruth hit had a launch angle, every pitch Walter Johnson threw had a spin rate, even in 1920. I cannot prove this (boy I wish we could!), but I will say with confidence that Babe Ruth most likely had an average launch angle between the ideal 15-30 degrees that resulted in 714 home runs. Walter Johnson probably had elite spin rates (amongst his peers) that resulted in 3500 strikeouts. Now that the “analytics” issue is addressed, let’s look at what exactly hitters are doing differently.
Do damage. It doesn’t matter the count, the pitcher, the situation; hitters are at the dish with the intentions of doing damage. To go deep sea fishing. Joey Gallo talked about it when he discussed his hitting approach with Fangraphs earlier this season. Josh Donaldson talked about about how to maximize his power when he had his epic interview with Mark DeRosa on MLB Central. The best part is at the end of the video when DeRosa asked, “you’re thinking damage all the time?” Donaldson replies, “why wouldn’t I?” That shows the mindset of modern day hitters in several Major League locker rooms. Daniel Murphy is on record a lot talking about these things. He is one of the most prominent figures to have a swing overhaul. He is on record multiple times talking about getting his “A swing” off (here and here). If he wants, Murphy will be a prominent hitting coach the day he retires as a player from the league. Listening to him talk about hitting is always gold standard.
Two things mentioned in each and every one of those excerpts is “damage” and “plane.” So what exactly does damage mean? It doesn’t simply mean hitting home runs; it also includes doubles and triples—extra base hits of any kind.
The idea is to put the team in the optimal position to score runs with one swing of the bat. A double or a triple puts a player in scoring position, while a home run puts a run on the board instantaneously. This is the most effective way to put runs on the board, which is why MLB organizations are trying to build their lineup with 8 or 9 guys that are able to consistently put themselves in the best position to score runs.
The easiest way to “Do Damage” is by consistently hitting baseballs hard. Hitters with a frequent 90+ average exit velocity hit for the most power, which means they do the most damage regardless of whether they collect doubles or home runs. Nobody hits the ball harder in the MLB than Joey Gallo and Aaron Judge, does it come as any surprise that these guys consistently hit balls over the fence? It shouldn’t. So the talking point of a modern hitter is to find a way to maximize exit velocity, this is by taking their “A swing.”
What exactly does an “A swing” include? It is, in the easiest terms, to swing as hard as one can and create the most bat speed possible without swinging and missing every time. It creates more swing-and-miss in some hitters but also translates to more power for most of them.
The one thing I must identify is that every hitter is different. There is not one swing that works for everyone. Fangraphs is doing an awesome series of articles where they talk to different hitters about hitting and their own individual approach. Fernando Tatis Jr. says his swing is “all about the hands”, while Josh Donaldson says he “completely takes his hands out of the equation.” Both are elite hitters, with a ton of knowledge, and neither are wrong.
That is what makes this beautiful game so special. Every hitter can have their own unique style and it is considered correct. There is not a perfect way to hit, even if a lot of coaches will tell you otherwise. This is a side note, but my advice to young hitters that might be reading: be athletic, make your own adjustments, and most importantly be comfortable. Coaches: have an open dialogue with hitters, ask them what they want to accomplish, and don’t overhaul or overwhelm them. Coaches, never wholesale-change hitters mid-season or even mention anything about a hitter’s swing mid game. You are trying to help, but all it does is create overthinking, and baseball is already an extremely difficult sport.
Since I am trying to acknowledge what hitters are doing differently leading to more home runs, am I implying hitters did not swing as hard as they could in the past? No, but I think the fear of swinging and missing was greater then, and overcoming that fear (or understanding baseball better than it’s been understood in the past) has led to some untapped power in a lot of hitters throughout the past five seasons or so. Also consider the difference between the MLB leader in home runs 20 years ago and the co-leaders today:
That’s a lot more muscle mass in 1999 compared to two of the sport’s greatest home run hitters today. Even Khris Davis stands under 6 feet tall and led the MLB in home runs last season. So hitters are hitting a lot of home runs at smaller sizes.
You might ask why this is important: in my opinion, it shows the changes mechanically that hitters have made over time. Take steroids out of the equation and let’s look at it from a physics standpoint. Force= Mass x Acceleration. Hitters have swung similar bats over the years, so the mass has not changed. The larger/stronger a human being, the more acceleration they can apply to their swing. So how do Christian Yelich (195 lbs.) and Cody Bellinger (210 lbs.) have similar rates of acceleration as Mark McGwire (250 lbs), especially since McGwire self-admittedly benefited from playing in the Steroid Era? Better mechanics.
Right off the bat you can see a major difference between Yelich and McGwire. Yelich transfers his weight onto his back leg in his load, McGwire barely even uses his legs. He just uses his arms to muscle the ball out of the park. You also notice a massive difference in the way the hands move. As Yelich’s front leg moves toward the pitcher, his hands begin to move back. He retracts his scapula, and creates a rubber band effect Donaldson talks about with his swing. Next, you can see much more power generated from Yelich’s hips, as the weight he transferred onto his back leg is now being generated into the swing. It is to the point that his back leg “gains ground,” coming slightly off the ground, helping generate similar bat speed to a hitter much stronger than him.
Bellinger has a little different set up, but the same movements apply. The hands move back a little earlier than Yelich’s, but still get him into a great hitting position as the front foot makes contact with the ground. He then begins the movement with his hips, generating so much power that his foot comes completely off the ground. He generates so much rotational power and bat speed that he is often off-balance after his swing. Why does a hitter need to be balanced after contact is already made? You are limiting the amount of power a hitter can tap into by having them “squash the bug” or “hold their finish.” MLB players are generating more power, comparable to the steroid era by avoiding these mechanical flaws.
Baez’s swing is the epitome of taking an “A swing.” He takes absolute daddy hacks every time he steps to the plate. There is nobody that takes a better hack in the league than Javy. His rotational power, from a 5-foot-10, 190 lb. body, is comparable to any hitter at any size from any era. Yes, he has a swing-and-miss tendency. Yes, he is streaky. But when it comes to making the most of their body and creating their own power from more things than just their size and strength, nobody does it better than Baez. He creates his own elite exit velocity.
Since hitting the ball hard helps, but doesn’t guarantee “damage”, we must dive into the second term hitters discussed: plane. To make it to professional baseball, most hitters already have fantastic bat-to-ball skills that lead to good exit velocity numbers. Some need some seasoning to make their mechanics more efficient to translate those numbers against better competition, but you do not play at that level without some ability to consistently make barrel contact. The main swing adjustment that professional hitters make is getting on plane more. This will help hitters improve their launch angle. A baseball has a downward plane towards the plate. Why would a hitter try to “swing down” on this baseball? Even a max effort swing, with perfect contact, would lead to a 100+ mph groundball. In the big leagues, because of shifts and quicker athletes, ground balls are outs. So why wouldn’t a hitter try to match the plane of the ball? Create a slight upward plane with the bat and meet the ball on it’s downward plane to maximize the contact.
As you can see, even Alex Rodriguez matches the plane and does not swing down on the ball, contrary to what he believes and says about his swing. This is not to knock A-Rod, he was an elite hitter and whatever worked for him definitely worked, but for someone who believes he was swinging down, the reality is he wasn’t. The bat is on an upward plane meeting the ball on it’s downward plane.
Check this video out. Hunter Pence explains to Trevor Bauer the things he changed to lead to his comeback season, putting him as the front runner for AL Comeback player of the year. Relevant to the points being made in this article? Absolutely.
Full Bauer Bytes with @hunterpence out now. Check it out, it’s a good one👀👀 pic.twitter.com/jAswJtDevc
— Trevor Bauer (@BauerOutage) July 18, 2019
This is what a lot of hitters are focusing on improving. It is not only making good hitters great, but it is helping guys close to the ‘sunset’ resurrect their careers. They are combining elite exit velocity with an improved launch angle and turning into more productive hitters. They understand this is their best avenue to success in today’s game. To do damage, a ball must be hit hard and in the air in some way. In 2017, the lowest launch angle on a home run recorded by statcast was 15 degrees, by none other than Aaron Judge. That ball was hit at a well-above-league-average 115.2 mph. It is not debatable that it is impossible to hit an over-the-fence home run on the ground, no matter how hard it is hit. A high exit velocity, with a launch angle that is between the ideal 15-30 degree range, the higher the probability of doing damage. The correlation shown below is undoubted.
I used wOBA as the y axis on both graphs. wOBA is a way to measure the outcome of every plate appearance. It measures the value of every batted ball. Very bad is anything under .290, while average is .320. Anything above that has value, and ‘elite’ is anything above .400. I took the data for every batted ball with similar launch angle and exit velocity traits, and graphed the wOBA for each of those outcomes. These graphs show just how important exit velocity and launch angle is to a productive batted ball. The greater the exit velocity the more productive the batted ball will be. There will always be unlucky times where a ball is hit 105 right at somebody, but more times than not a ball hit that hard has good results.
As for launch angle, the higher does not mean the better. There is a bell curve with this data. Once a ball is getting into the 35 degree range we are talking about popups and lazy fly balls. The perfect range for a batted ball in terms of launch angle is the 15-30 range. Even batted balls in the 5-10 and 30 range are productive cause those can be the line drives that get over the infield. So being able to find a way to maintain a consistent launch angle higher than 10 but less than 30, while maximizing exit velocity output is the best route to production for a hitter.
Because exit velocity and launch angle are the best way to success, which hitter do you think does more damage? Player A: 93.1 EV with a 14.4 LA, or Player B: 91.6 EV 8.3 LA. In this scenario, following what I have discussed up to this point, you would likely take Player A. Well that player is not the more productive player. Player A is sporting a .232/.326/.476/.803 slash line with 17 home runs, while player B is sporting a .289/.323/.549/.872 with 22 home runs. Player A is Kyle Schwarber, while player B is Javier Baez. Baez has a lower exit velocity and launch angle, but better power numbers including home runs, ISO and extra base hits. You could just chalk it up to the fact that Schwarber strikes out too much and when he does make contact it just happens to be hard and at the right launch angle, but Baez strikes out in 26% of his at bats while Schwarber strikeout at a slightly higher 28% of his at bats. Then you could say that Baez swings at everything, while Schwarber takes a walk as shown in the fact that he has a better on base even with 50 less points in batting average. And that definitely helps with Baez’s counting stats (home runs & extra base hits), but Baez still has the advantage in ISO meaning more of his hits come as extra base hits than Schwarber.
So what’s the deal?
Baez is a much more consistent hitter at making barrel contact. Statcast has a complex definition for what they consider a barrel, but it is a batted ball with above a .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage. To be classified as a barrel, a ball must be struck at least 98 mph. At 98, a ball struck between 26-30 degrees is always considered a barrel. For every mph the exit velocity increases, the wider the launch angle for which the ball must be hit between becomes. So a ball hit 105 mph has a much larger difference in degrees to be classified as a barrel.
This can be a confusing concept, so thank God Statcast calculates it for us. This data tells us that Baez catches a barrel in 15% of his batted balls, which is 41 on the year, good for 22nd in baseball. Schwarber has a very respectable barrel in 13.5% of his plate appearances, which is 31 total on the year. Baez might swing the bat a lot more, and he makes more soft contact on the ground (mainly because of the amount of moving parts in his swing needed to create great exit velocity) than Schwarber, but his ability to make that perfect contact is greater than Schwarber’s. The best hitters in the game are able to make that perfect contact the most, no matter their average exit velocity or launch angle, but to create that perfect batted ball it must have elite exit velocity and optimal launch angle.
Disclaimer: OPTIMIZING LAUNCH ANGLE IS NOT FOR EVERYBODY. The professional hitters that focus on it possess elite exit velocity and bat-to-ball skills. If you are a young baseball player looking for a way to increase performance, or a travel/high school baseball coach trying to develop players, the primary and most important focus should be on increasing exit velocity. Even if that means on the ground. Youth players should focus on hard line drives, which has been taught for years. Try to avoid cues like “get on top of the ball” or “focus on a groundball to second”, and use more beneficial cues like “get your A swing off”, “maximize your power output”, or “get off your back leg.” This will help players more than trying to increase launch angle, which when coupled with below average exit velocity will decrease production and lead to several bad habits.
When taking an “A swing” there will be more moving parts, and a lot of them creating violent actions. This could lead to some flaws in swings that lead to swings and misses. Some people believe this is bad for baseball, and that no matter how many home runs a guy hits if he strikes out 200 times, he must be a bad baseball player.
But the game is changing. It’s already changed. Players are being taught to consistently take their best swing, and if that means swinging and missing 9 times in a game, that is a risk worth taking for the extra damage these swings create. Also if you follow Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) on Twitter you would know that pitchers are better and making contact with some of the pitches the way they move is an accomplishment in it’s own.
Baseball is in good hands. Yes the balls are juiced, and the combination of that with the improved mechanics and the emphasis of launch angle is leading to all time records in home runs (up from 1.19 per game in 2001 to 1.36 this season). The game might be changing, but it is still the same game we all fell in love with, just with more strikeouts and home runs. That is only because the talent is at an all time high for both pitchers and hitters, which is great for the sport. And who knows, maybe the next wave of talent will hit for power AND not strike out. (I’m talking to you Vlad Jr. and Wander Franco). Wouldn’t that be something special?
Follow P365 staff writer Trevor Powers on Twitter! @TPowerProspects
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Featured image courtesy of photographer Dylan Buell and Getty Images